Austria plans industrial permitting overhaul

Businesses fear proposed obligation to "prevent" pollution will lengthen procedures

A plan by the Austrian government to streamline and strengthen environmental permit procedures for industry has been criticised by the Austrian Chamber of Commerce. Small businesses, in particular, are concerned that a proposed new obligation on licensed firms to "prevent" harm to the environment could make permitting procedures more complex, despite the planned creation of a "one-stop shop" permit system.

The draft environmental law for enterprises (Umweltgesetz für Betriebanlagen, or UGBA) is designed to implement revised EU directives on project environmental impact assessment (EIA) and major industrial hazards (the Seveso II directive), as well as the EU's 1996 directive on integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC), the first deadline for implementation of which is due at the end of October.

At a conference last week, the Austrian Chamber of Commerce described the proposed law as too environment-minded and overly bureaucratic. Any other option would be better, the organisation said, even no new law at all.

Under the UGBA, the government wants to introduce a single environmental permitting system in place of the up to five permits that businesses currently have to obtain. Integrated permitting will be required for the most environmentally significant firms under IPPC rules. A similar, though more simple, system will apply to thousands of smaller operations as well.

For firms subject to IPPC rules, the new law will also introduce regular reviews of permits at least once every ten years. For the smallest companies, which will be excluded from the permitting rules, the law will nevertheless introduce a new requirement that they commit to achieving minimum standards, for example to avoid "major impacts" on the environment.

Tough Austrian EIA procedures will be simplified under the proposal, in order to reflect the larger number of projects for which assessments will be required. A new deadline of nine months will be introduced for all EIAs and six months for smaller projects, while a third category of EIA will be required in so-called "sensitive areas," such as national parks.

The government is looking to shift responsibility for granting permits from national or provincial level to Austria's 99 county authorities, which will make the system one of the most decentralised in the EU for operating IPPC. Austrian environment minister Martin Bartenstein is hoping to rush through further debate after a consultation period ends on 28 May, with a view to final adoption of the law before the summer break.

Follow Up:
Austrian environment ministry, tel: +43 1 515 220; Austrian Chamber of Commerce, tel: +43 1 501 050.

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